Friday, November 23, 2007

The man who attended my father's "bris"

(For the unitiated: A "bris" is a religious ceremony celebrating the circumcision of Jewish boys eight days after their birth.)

My late father was a bit of a raconteur and loved to tell tales about his early life. One of his favorite stories was about an experience he had as a young man working in a store in a small town in Arkansas. He had overcome the objections of his immigrant parents and had quit an Orthodox Jewish religious seminary in New York City. He was 18 and was determined to seek his fortune elsewhere.

Under circumstances that he never satisfactorily explained to me, he wound up in Pine Bluff, Ark., where he was employed by a Jewish merchant who operated a dry goods store. I haven't heard the retail term "dry goods" in many years, and I am uncertain whether it is still in common usage. But the term refers to sheets, pillow cases, towels and related textile products.

One day a Jewish traveling salesman from New York visited the store. Upon being introduced to my father, the salesman said that my father's surname sounded very familiar to him.

"Where you born?" the salesman asked my father. "And how old are you?"

"I was born in 1897 in Ostrava, near Lomza in Poland," my father responded. (The region was then ruled by Czarist Russia.)

When he heard my father's answers, the salesman became extremely interested in my father's family background. "Was your father a Hasidic rabbi, and did your mother operate a vegetable oil press?" he asked.

My father confirmed that this was indeed the case. The salesman became excited and exclaimed to my father: "I was at your bris!"

He explained that he had been stationed in my father's birthplace, Ostrava, while serving in the Czarist Russian army. The town is located near what was the border with Germany's former territory, East Prussia, and was an important Russian garrison prior to World War I.

Jewish soldiers in the Czarist army were invariably invited to the homes of local Jewish families for Sabbath dinner. The salesman had been a guest in my grandparents' home so often that he was regarded as an honorary member of the family. When my father was born, he was naturally invited to the "bris."

That the ex-Russian soldier encountered my father nearly two decades later in a small town in Arkansas demonstrates that it is indeed, as the cliche has it, "a small world."

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6 Comments:

Anonymous lilalia said...

I loved this story because it not only bridged time and geography, but lead me back into another era. Thanks.

Friday, November 23, 2007 12:56:00 PM  
Blogger masdevallia said...

A small world indeed. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Saturday, November 24, 2007 3:24:00 AM  
Blogger Peggy said...

Wow! Small world indeed!

Saturday, November 24, 2007 8:50:00 AM  
Blogger baalbatish said...

I really enjoy your blog especially the memories of your father and yourself. You mention that your grandfather was a Chasidic rabbi. Was he a practicing rabbi? Which Chasidic group did he belong to? Just curious.

Sunday, November 25, 2007 12:05:00 PM  
Blogger Chancy said...

I remember the term "dry goods store" from my childhood in Athens Ga. Interesting.

Sunday, November 25, 2007 4:05:00 PM  
Blogger joared said...

I, too, recall hearing the term dry goods store used by my mother. She also spoke of shopping at a general store -- a delightful place I had the good fortune to visit before they closed the business when I was young.

Fascinating story about your father encountering the ex-Russian soldier and that either one of them would have been in such a remote part of our country at that time.

Diverging from the point of your story, I have a question. If a young man was circumcised, but not Jewish, would that "evidence" alone have condemned him to the concentration camps in those later days of the Holocaust?

BTW I send your wife good wishes and hope she is continuing to recover well.

Monday, November 26, 2007 5:33:00 AM  

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